Clarity amid extremism

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WHETHER analyzing the political upheavals in Nepal with cool calculation or heated passion, one invariably arrives at the conclusion that King Gyanendra's military coup is no solution.

It is, however, a clarifying event. The February 2005 coup was years in the coming. In fact, this was only the final step in what was a staggered coup. The first step came in October 2002, when the king sacked the then Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba on grounds of incompetence, and appointed a hand-picked cabinet headed by the panchayat-era palace loyalist Lokendra Bahadur Chand. Though many analysts, including some of the drafters of the 1990 Constitution, questioned the legality of his move, the king claimed to be exercising legitimate emergency powers. Since then he has appointed and sacked cabinets at will, all the while maintaining – with increasingly threadbare legitimacy – to be functioning within the purview of the constitution.

What is remarkable about the February 2005 coup is that the king is claiming that he is taking absolute control in the interest of rescuing democracy from itself. He seems to expect that nobody in this world will notice that his actions are irredeemably fascist. But it has been very easy for Nepalis to decipher the king's different moves, because they duplicate the most repressive policies of the panchayat era.

After all, there is nothing new about suspending civil liberties, arresting hundreds of democratic political activists and civil society members across the country, and setting up a commission for ‘corruption control' to nationalize the properties of political opponents. This was what we had in Nepal before 1990. Even the cabinet members are back from retirement. Tulsi Giri and Kirti Nidhi Bista, the twin vice-chairpersons of the council of ministers, had both left government service back in the 1980s. Further back in the 1950s, the former had acted as a royal palace plant in the Nepali Congress, betraying his party colleagues in favour of King Mahendra's 1960 coup. The rest of the cabinet is similarly (as Nepalis say to each other) ‘date-expired', or plain unlikely. Witness R.K. Mainali, a Naxalite-royalist. That the king is also the cabinet chairperson is yet another bizarre twist.

What is new, however, is that the state security forces (those who aren't busy suppressing democratic dissidents) are now being set loose on the countryside with no checks and balances, no accountability, and no fear of punishment for the atrocities and war crimes that they might commit. Of course – with the media and human rights activists censored, threatened, restricted and jailed – it is impossible to know exactly what is happening any more. But independent eyewitness reports being circulated underground – and increasingly also openly – are extremely worrying.

A recent incident took place in Kapilvastu district, near the India border, when Maoists tried to abduct two people, including a former police sub-inspector. The local villagers formed a mob to repel them. Then, for more than a week beginning 17 February, these mobs, led by volunteer vigilantes armed by the government under a scheme called the village defence committee, attacked internally displaced families in over 21 villages in the district accusing them of being Maoists. Local participants in the mobs later said that they had been warned by the Royal Nepal Army that if they did not help wage these attacks, they would themselves be labelled Maoists. At the end of the rampage, two dozen migrants had been murdered, over 600 of their houses were burned to cinders, and nearly 2000 people, including entire families, left homeless.

Before the coup, when it was legal for Nepalis to speak their minds, the village defence committee scheme had come in for severe criticism from democratic political activists and civil society. It had been introduced in 2002 upon the advice of a USAID consultant who had previously worked in Peru studying the Shining Path. Mimicking a scheme implemented in Guatemala in the 1970s and '80s – with deadly, disastrous results – the VDC amounts to arming local thugs, extremists and bandits, and granting them free reign. Any veneer of rule of law is abandoned when adopting it. Successive governments in Nepal have continued this scheme, though almost covertly, out-and-out lying about its existence till caught out by the media. After the February 2005 coup, with the media and human rights activists suppressed, the government has openly backed the scheme. Some members of the village defence committee in Kapilvastu are reportedly behind the recent kidnapping of a Himalmedia reporter who had gone to cover the mob rampage. To do so, they masqueraded as Maoists, releasing him after warning him to be careful in his reporting.

And so, as bad as things were before the coup, they have worsened now. The fact is, the state has always fought a dirty war against the Maoists, and it is only going to get dirtier now. Not that the Maoists haven't been brutal. And not that the state doesn't have a right to defend itself when under attack. But to maintain its own legitimacy, it must follow legal rules of engagement.

If we keep in mind the fact that the state has been responsible for a full three-fourths of the killings that have taken place in the insurgency and counter-insurgency, we get a sense of what its military strategy has been.

Human rights workers have documented widespread abuse by the state, including fake encounters (wherein unarmed suspected Maoists are killed, then reported to have been armed Maoists), unlawful detention (detention in army barracks or other government offices without due process), disappearances, rape, and extortion. State security forces have regularly dressed in civilian clothes, with their weapons concealed; when arresting suspects, they are literally indistinguishable from the Maoists. In some places in East Nepal, they have even dressed as Maoists (with red bandanas, or with hammer-and-sickle signs on their clothing) and greeted people with ‘red salute' signs, only to take them out and shoot them if they return in kind. For ordinary villagers – who out of sheer fear for their lives would return anyone's red salute with a red salute of their own – such underhanded tactics have proved impossible to survive. Human rights workers have estimated that a full 50 per cent of the people killed by the security forces are civilians.

The kinds of examples mentioned above are, unfortunately, not isolated incidents. Atrocities and abuse are so widespread and systematic in the state security forces, they appear to form the core of the counter-insurgency: cast a wide net, and surely some Maoists will be caught. In his address to the nation upon his coup, King Gyanendra stated, somewhat irately, that human rights workers must not put the state on the same level as the Maoists. His implication was that they should cut the state some slack. In fact, they should not cut the state any slack, especially when its own legitimacy is under question. Even in the case of a legitimate government, the state must be held to a higher standard. Otherwise what moral superiority can it claim?

In addition to being the head of civilian government as the chairman of the c­abinet, the king is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Nepal Army. Perhaps he feels protected by the fact that he is above the law of the land. But by international law he has been, since February 2005, responsible for all the systematic atrocities and war crimes committed. He must answer for the rampage in Kapilvastu district, and the other military operations taking place. He must account for the policies of civilian government.

It is tragic that it should take such extremism to give us all some clarity. This is certainly what the international community seem to have needed to realize that the king's actions – since his ascendancy to the throne in June 2001, and especially since October 2002 – have not been in the interest of peace in Nepal. The international community is almost more powerful than the Nepalis in Nepal. This, because they supply the loans, grants, arms and world legitimacy that any regime there needs to survive.

When the king enacted the first step of his coup in October 2002, the international community were near-unanimous in their support. The Indians, British and Americans welcomed his intervention, and the World Bank expressed great hope for speedy reform. Aid continued and even increased. The international community unquestioningly threw money the king's way, even when development aid got diverted for military purposes, even when there were no mechanisms to audit the government, even when the royal palace's budget increased by 600%. The international community were literally kingmakers. They granted King Gyanendra the two-and-a-half years it took him to prepare the ground for his final February 2005 power-grab.

Now they seem embarrassed by their own complicity. Or they are hurt, and feel betrayed by the king. They have suspended (though not withdrawn) aid, and are making all the right noises about how the king must restore democracy, or else… For Nepalis, this has been a costly exercise in educating the international community. But the education has come at last, 11,000 lives and year-in year-out nationwide terror and heartache later. The hope, now, is that the international community will not abandon Nepalis again to a king we never chose, a king we do not like and do not want. It is not that Nepalis want the international community to do everything for them. It is just that we want them to acknowledge that they are real players in Nepal, and that wrong move at this time can be deadly for us.

We Nepalis, for our part, have also been blind-sighted by small-nation thinking. We have not thought through our options beyond monarchy – other than fearing a Maoist takeover. We seem frankly incapable of envisioning ourselves as a liberal democratic republic, partly because we have been caught up in a day-to-day struggle to survive. Nepal has had a very martial past, but nothing of the scale of today's violence has ever been wrought upon ordinary citizens. There has never before been a revolution here, not even a bourgeois revolution. The 1990 democracy movement was after all limited to the urban centres. The Maoist insurgency is the first nationwide mass movement; the countryside is striking back at Kathmandu for the first time. All this is very confusing and – because so much violence is involved – very frightening.

Fear tends to paralyze. Only the Nepalis who have overcome their fear are openly opposing King Gyanendra's military regime. Rebellions are growing every day, and not just among political party activists. The media is revolting against censorship, civil society is demanding rule of law. The jails are already full of dissidents. More than half the military is stationed in Kathmandu, trying to control lawyers, journalists, activists. In the countryside, the Maoists – who had driven mainstream political party activists from the villages – are welcoming them back, inviting them to join forces against the monarchy. The king will simply not be able to contain all this dissent.

And so another solution is needed now. An honest solution, a lasting one. One that might bring with it a republican Nepal. For this, certainly, is the call of the times: the monarchy must retreat to a strictly ceremonial position, or go.

Whether or not this happens will depend on the democratic political parties' ability to form an equal union with the Maoists. Both now share the same demand for a new constitution via a constituent assembly that is to be elected by an all-party interim government. Should the Maoists end their violence now, and join the democratic political parties in their nonviolent movement for democracy, the king will have no choice but to negotiate for a ceremonial position. The force of popular will may simply overthrow him otherwise.

* Manjushree Thapa is the author of The Tutor of History and Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy For Democracy in Nepal.